Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gone Too Soon: Gail Russell

Note: This is a second post in the Gone Too Soon blogathon hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. After writing about Carole Landis, I decided to write an extra blogathon post on one of my favorite actresses, Gail Russell. I was inspired to do so after seeing her excellent performance in THE TATTERED DRESS (1957) last night.

Gail Russell was one of the most hauntingly beautiful women ever to appear in the movies. She was also a sensitive actress who was used to great effect in some wonderful movies. Unfortunately that touching sensitivity was a factor offscreen as well; Russell waged a long battle against shyness and stage fright. She "steadied her nerves" with alcohol, leading to a decline in her appearance and an early death at the age of 36.

Gail Russell was born in Chicago on September 21, 1924. Her family moved to California and in her late teens she signed with Paramount Pictures. She appeared in her first film, the programmer HENRY ALDRICH GETS GLAMOUR (1943), at the age of 18.

Russell's star rose quickly; after a small role in LADY IN THE DARK (1944) she was given the plum role of Stella in the classic "haunted house" thriller THE UNINVITED (1944). Stella is gently romanced by a dashing older man (Ray Milland) who tries to understand the odd connection between Stella and the spooky home he's recently purchased.

The score for THE UNINVITED introduced a song named for Russell's character which became an American standard, the haunting "Stella By Starlight."

Russell's ethereal beauty was used to good effect in additional films with an otherwordly quality, including THE UNSEEN (1945) with Joel McCrea, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) with John Lund and Edward G. Robinson, and WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) with John Wayne.

Russell was well matched with Alan Ladd in SALTY O'ROURKE (1945) and CALCUTTA (1947), and she appeared opposite John Payne in EL PASO (1949) and CAPTAIN CHINA (1950).

Among the other memorable titles in Russell's relatively short but impressive career were OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY (1944), in which she starred as Cornelia Otis Skinner, and its sequel, OUR HEARTS WERE GROWING UP (1946). THE BACHELOR'S DAUGHTERS (1946) was a particularly well-made and original romantic comedy-drama, and MOONRISE (1948) is a very highly regarded film noir which also starred Dane Clark.

My favorite Russell film has long been ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), in which Russell and John Wayne played the title roles. Russell's Penny is a Quaker girl who is disarmingly direct about her feelings for John Wayne's gunslinger, and in due course he can't stop from falling in love with the lovely Penny.

After AIR CADET (1951) Russell's career hit the skids due to her problems with alcohol. She was off the screen for several years when her good friend John Wayne invited her to appear in a Randolph Scott Western he was producing. The film happened to be SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), now recognized as one of several classics made by Scott with director Budd Boetticher.

The following year Russell gave an extremely impressive performance in the courtroom drama THE TATTERED DRESS (1957). A scene where she breaks down under cross-examination by Jeff Chandler showed just how talented an actress Russell was.

Sadly, Russell appeared in only two more films, NO PLACE TO LAND (1958) and THE SILENT CALL (1961), as well as a couple of TV appearances. She died in Los Angeles on August 27, 1961, due to alcohol-related causes.

Thanks to TCM and a very kind friend, I have all of Russell's films, and I look forward to seeing several more of her movies in the future, as well as revisiting favorites. Although Russell's life was too short, her fine work lives on.

March 23 Update: An adapted version of this post is now available at MovieFanFare.

October 2013 Update: Here are additional reviews of Gail Russell films, LADY IN THE DARK (1944), MOONRISE (1948), and THE LAWLESS (1950).


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Thanks for choosing her, Laura. She is an all-time favorite of mine--as soulful as she was beautiful and it all came over on screen, whatever her own insecurity.

Much as I also like ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, I like her other film with John Wayne WAKE OF THE RED WITCH even more. That one and SEVEN MEN FROM NOW are for me her two best movies, and especially the second, a wonderful comeback after those half dozen years off screen.

But in so many films from THE UNINVITED she is haunting. I enjoyed reading your piece on the excellent THE TATTERED DRESS earlier and like that you singled her out.

(Now to try to prove I'm "not a robot" and will still try to get back to FOXFIRE later)

6:03 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

That got through well--I'm getting less nervous about trying it (my first try at FOXFIRE took me three times to get through).

Your Gail Russell appreciation reminded me TCM was going to be showing her last film THE SILENT CALL, which I haven't seen. Did I miss this? I just looked through March schedule and didn't see it.

If you know when, would appreciate...

By the way, Budd Boetticher (SEVEN MEN FROM NOW) told me that although it was hard to control her drinking, he succeeded, much to her benefit and that of the film, and that he considered her the best heroine, meaning her performance and the realized character, in any of his films.

I just looked her up at IMDb and there is a quote from her that made me so sad I burst into tears.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Angela Petteys said...

Great post! One of my favorite recent movie discoveries was The Uninvited. I don't believe I've seen her in anything else, but I really liked her in The Uninvted. I had no idea she died so young.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Yes, hauntingly beautiful is a good way to describe her, and a wonderful actress.
Love, Love LOVE The Uninvited,in my opinion one of the best spooky movies ever made!

10:28 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

My error on SILENT CALL. It was not TCM but was on Fox Movie Channel and returns April 5. Sorry to ask about it needlessly. I'm still interested in where you found NO PLACE TO LAND, which sounds like it might be the more interesting of these last two, at least for Gail's role.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all *very* much for the kind comments. I'm so glad to hear from fellow Gail Russell fans! My apologies for not being able to answer sooner, I was gone all day Sunday and since then have been swamped with work and things like a dead hot water heater. :)

Angela, I hope you'll have the opportunity to see some other Gail Russell films soon. So glad you and Rob both enjoyed THE UNINVITED, a really wonderful film!

Blake, loved your anecdote direct from Boetticher, that is fantastic you are able to share bits of info like that with us. Thank you for posting the info on THE SILENT CALL airing on Fox next month! I'm actually not sure of the provenance of NO PLACE TO LAND, it was sent to me by a kind friend who is a fellow Russell fan, but I haven't watched that one yet. Looking forward to it.

Glad that you also liked THE TATTERED DRESS! Looking forward to your comments on FOXFIRE. I enjoyed it so well via Netflix that I was glad to be able to record it from Encore Westerns within the past week.

Best wishes,

7:51 PM  

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